‘Chunk’ plays consistently sabotaging Colts’ defense

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Seven weeks into a season teetering on the brink of irrelevance and the Indianapolis Colts are maddeningly consistent in one area.

At some point in a game, their defense is going to get gashed. More to the point, they’re going to get gashed on several occasions.

Count on it.

The breakdown of a defense ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed per game (425.4) and 32nd in points allowed (31.7) reveals way too many breakdowns. The Colts have allowed 2,978 total yards on 436 plays, and a shade more than half – 1,498 – has come on just 49 snaps.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The NFL is all about making plays that make a difference. It’s a running back breaking a tackle and turning a 5-yard run into a 50-yarder. It’s a quarterback either exposing a breakdown in coverage and finding a receiver for a deep strike or fitting the football into tight coverage and coming away with the same results.

So often, games swing on “chunk’’ plays, which are defined as receptions of at least 20 yards and rushes of at least 15.

The Colts have yielded a league-high 40 completions that have gained at least 20 yards, according to NFL.com. The Kansas City Chiefs are second, with 30. In 16 games last season, Indy’s pass defense gave up 55.

To compound matters, the Colts run defense has endured similar breakdowns: 8 rushes of at least 15 yards. At Tennessee, the Titans’ Derrick Henry ripped off a 72-yard touchdown. Six days later, Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon piled on with a 58-yard TD.

“You’ve got to make them earn everything and that’s what we’re striving to do,’’ Chuck Pagano said. “If they earn it that way, I got no issues.

“They’re going to make plays. They get paid. They get scholarships, too, on the other side. That’s the whole deal. We’ve got to make them earn everything.’’

Listen to Pagano and defensive coordinator Ted Monachino, and it’s been a myriad of issues. Communication breakdowns. Fundamental breakdowns in coverage and wrapping up. A missed tackle. A wrong “fit’’ against a run.

“All those things add up to big plays,’’ Pagano said.

The contributing factors to Yeldon’s 58-yard TD included nickel corner Nate Harrison and inside linebacker Antonio Morrison failing to shed blocks, which created a nice lane for Yeldon and safety Matthias Farley slipping on the helmet logo at midfield as he tried to change directions to give pursuit.

“And then Vontae (Davis) didn’t get over and fit the crack replace right,’’ Monachino explained. “Yeah, there are a lot of things there that happened.

“You can never take that run out, right? You can’t say, ‘If we take eight plays out of the game, then we were the best defense.’ Well, those eight plays matter. They’re the most important plays in the game.

“If we can avoid the one big run every week, then our rush statistics are right where we need them to be.’’

Again, the breakdown in the run game is numbing. The Colts’ run defense ranks 26th in yards per game allowed (124.7) and 20th in yards per attempt (4.3) because of occasional breakout plays. On 197 attempts, opponents have averaged 3.1 per attempt. On the other 8, it’s 33.0.

The next test comes Sunday in Cincinnati, and the Bengals offer stiff challenges on both fronts.

Quarterback Andy Dalton is mired in a lackluster season – 272 yards per game, 9 touchdowns, 8 interceptions – but he and A.J. Green remain one of the league’s most dangerous tandems. Green is tied for 15th with 35 receptions, but is second with 545 yards.

“Andy loves the guy,’’ Monachino said. “We’ve got to know that even when A.J. is covered, he’s open, when you’re looking at it from Andy’s point of view.’’

Complicating the Colts’ approach will be the absence of starting cornerback Rashaan Melvin, out with a concussion. The possible replacements are rookie Quincy Wilson, Pierre Desir, Kenny Moore II or Chris Milton.

Cincinnati’s running game is one of the NFL’s least effective – 28th in yards per game, 31st in yards per attempt – but rookie Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard offer the type of shiftiness and speed that often have perplexed the Colts.

  • Medical update: Quarterback Andrew Luck (right shoulder), linebacker John Simon (stinger) and Melvin (concussion) have been ruled out of Sunday’s game. Players who are questionable: wide receiver Kamar Aiken (shoulder), safeties Darius Butler (ankle) and T.J. Green (hamstring) and center Ryan Kelly (knee/pelvis).

Kelly’s status, though, isn’t in doubt. He’ll return to the lineup after missing the second half of the Jaguars game with what was described as a hamstring injury. Kelly was held out of Wednesday’s practice and was limited Thursday before being a full participant Friday.

“I feel good,’’ he said. “At this point in the NFL, nobody is 100 percent healthy. Just playing through it.’’

  • Kelly’s crowd: At least a portion of Sunday’s crowd will be wearing Kelly’s No. 78 jersey. He grew up in West Chester, Ohio, about 16 miles north of Cincinnati, and has purchased more than 70 tickets to accommodate family and friends.

“It’ll be cool,’’ Kelly said. “I grew up a Bengals fan my entire life and always wanted to play there. My grandparents will be there, aunts and uncles and cousins.

“To go there and play in front of them is going to be really sweet.’’

  • Lineup change: With Simon out, Barkevious Mingo will start at strong-side linebacker. Mingo has started 16 of 69 games in five seasons and last started for Cleveland in 2015.
  • Roster move: The team elevated outside linebacker Josh Perry to the active roster from the practice squad and waived tight end Henry Krieger-Coble.


You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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